This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the New York Jets to kick off the NFL regular season. Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
|QB||In the battle of veteran quarterbacks, 32-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick squares off against 36-year-old Josh McCown. Fitzpatrick has more starting experience under his belt (89 starts vs. 49 starts), but both players are at stages of their career where they are not going to be their reason their team comes away with a victory. Both quarterbacks will be charged with the task of protecting the football. That's how Cleveland won games at the beginning of last year.
Jets fans are talking about how Fitzpatrick's arm isn't what is used to be when it comes to pushing the ball downfield. While Cleveland's offense won't push the ball downfield regularly, McCown's arm on downfield throws was one of the notable things of camp and something they will be trying to hit with Travis Benjamin this week.
|RB||The Jets feature a tandem of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell. Ivory has an impressive 4.7 YPC career rushing average, but only had a 4.1 YPC average with the Jets in 2014, a career low. He is not a receiving threat out of the backfield -- that role belongs more to Powell, but the truth is that neither back is a prolific receiver.
Cleveland has chosen to roll with Isaiah Crowell as their starting tailback after parting ways with Terrance West last week. Crowell led the team in rushing touchdowns as a rookie and was most effective in 2014 when Alex Mack was still a member of the zone-blocking rushing scheme. The X-factor at the position is Duke Johnson, the team's third-round pick. He missed the majority of camp with a hamstring issue and then a concussion, but he is expected to be a big part of the offense. Shaun Draughn was also promoted to the 53-man roster to be the third running back on gameday.
Brandon Marshall is the newest member of the Jets as he finally gets to get a taste of life in the NFL without Jay Cutler. He might be disappointed, though, because the quarterback situation at his new team isn't any better. Marshall, along with Eric Decker, make for one of the bigger one-two receiving tandems in the NFL. Speedster Devin Smith, drafted in the second round, is not expected to play this week as he recovers from a rib injury. Jeremy Kerley will be the team's third wide receiver, and Jeff Cumberland is the team's starting tight end.
The Browns are going to roll with a rotation of receivers, much like they did in 2014. I am expecting Brian Hartline and Andrew Hawkins to be near 60% of the snaps, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin to be near 40% of the snaps, and Dwayne Bowe to be around 30% of the snaps. If you tell others around the NFL that Cleveland has a good group of receivers, they'll laugh at you. They don't have a No. 1 receiver, but the unit isn't lacking in skill and will be fine for McCown to work with. The Jets get the edge due to their size at receiver, but it's pretty close in terms of who should have the advantage here.
|OL||I don't have to keep singing the praises of Joe Thomas, Joel Bitonio, and Alex Mack. When it comes to Mack, there is still some concern as to whether he'll be as sharp as he was at the beginning of 2014 since he's coming off of a broken leg. John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz were effective enough this camp to hold off Cameron Erving, but I'm curious to see if the Browns deploy any 6-lineman packages this week, even in situations that aren't at the goal line.
The Jets are pretty similar to the Browns in the sense that their strength is from left-to-center with D'Brickashaw Ferguson, James Carpenter, and Nick Mangold, and their weaker area is on the right side of the line with Willie Colon and Breno Giacomini. The big difference is that besides Mangold, the other two players don't possess the same skill level as Thomas and Bitonio.
|DL||The Jets feature a 3-4 defense with Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams as the defensive ends and Damon Harrison playing nose tackle. Harrison is one of the best interior run stoppers in football, and Wilkerson is in the top three as well, per PFF. Williams, the sixth overall pick of the draft, had a really impressive camp -- think like "Danny-Shelton-impressive," except for the Jets.
Based on camp and the preseason, the Browns are expected to roll with Randy Starks and Desmond Bryant as their starting defensive ends and Danny Shelton at nose tackle. I've made my love affair with Shelton known here at DBN -- I think he is the single-most important piece toward the Browns' success in 2015. Desmond Bryant had a monstrous preseason, and with the general overhaul at the position in 2014 (basically only two defensive linemen remain), Cleveland did all they could to repair their 32nd-ranked run defense. The Jets get the edge because they are more of a proven commodity, even with Sheldon Richardson sidelined.
Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace are the Jets' starting outside linebackers, with Demario Davis and David Harris on the inside in the 3-4 defense. Although the unit does not feature much of a threat from a pass-rushing perspective, overall, they do a great job of defending the run, particularly with the sound tackling provided by Davis and Harris.
Paul Kruger had a breakout season in 2014 and was all over the place during this year's preseason. The other outside linebacker role is still in limbo a bit. Scott Solomon will start, but Barkevious Mingo and Nate Orchard are coming off injuries and fulfill niche roles (Mingo as a coverage linebacker, Orchard as a pass rusher). Karlos Dansby will play every snap as an inside linebacker with Craig Robertson and Christian Kirksey rotating at the other position just like they did in 2014.
|DB||I imagine that Jets fans would disagree with this ranking. The Jets get the slight edge at cornerback with Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Buster Skrine, but the Browns are a close second in the AFC with Joe Haden, Tramon Williams, and K'Waun Williams. In contrast, I would give Cleveland the slight edge at safety with Tashaun Gipson and Donte Whitner over Calvin Pryor and Marcus Gilchrist. It'll be fun to watch both teams' secondaries trying to win the battle every single snap.|
|ST||The Jets are going with Nick Folk at kicker again. He is an 80.6% career kicker and connected on 32-of-39 attempts in 2014. Travis Coons is untested as an NFL kicker, but I don't remember one report of him missing a kick this preseason.
The Browns acquired punter Andy Lee this offseason, and he's one of the best at his craft all-time. Considering the talented gunners that Cleveland saved roster spots for, they will definitely be playing the field position game when they can this year. The Jets send out Ryan Quigley, now in his third season with the club, and he's done a respectable job.
Cleveland should have the edge in the return game. Travis Benjamin appears to be "back" on punt returns, and we could see Duke Johnson or Justin Gilbert handling kickoffs. The Jets will use Jeremy Kerley to return punts, and Chris Owusu might be getting the call on kickoffs for practically the first time of his career.
Forget the Browns' historical record in openers -- it's a startling record but something that shouldn't be weighed in deciding who will win this game. Both teams come in very evenly matched, having bottom-of-the-barrel quarterbacks and great secondaries.
The Browns can be a good running team this year, but it's going to be very tough to get consistent rushing room against the Jets' defense. Considering the Jets' cornerbacks, it'll be tough for our receivers to get open too. That is where a guy like Duke Johnson or Rob Housler might come into play during some key moments (yes, I dropped a Housler bomb). The Browns will use Andy Lee's field position and their improved defense to shorten the field, pulling out a late win with a Travis Coons field goal in the final minutes of the game.
Cleveland Browns 17, New York Jets 14
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